Students filming documentary on state’s poor stop in Franklin

Published 8:17 am Friday, June 11, 2010

FRANKLIN—Two Virginia Commonwealth University film students making a documentary on economic hardships in Virginia were in Franklin last week, talking to people on their first stop of a two-month trek.

Filmmakers Ben Saunders and Joey Schihl expect to have “The Blank Street Project” completed by the end of the year.

“This place has been fantastic,” Schihl said Friday. “Everybody that we’ve met has been great and pointed us into good directions. This was really the only place on our list that we didn’t know anybody and we had no connections. But everyone has been super friendly.”

Schihl said he believes the non-profit organization sponsoring the documentary—the Virginia Interfaith Center in Richmond, which focuses on public policy issues and social justice—wanted the filmmakers to start their journey in Franklin because of the recent decision by International Paper Co. to close the paper mill here.

“I think that’s kind of why we were directed down here first, with it being pretty fresh and also that it’s not brutal around here yet,” Schihl said.

Saunders said the closure of the mill has been at the forefront for everyone they have met.

“We’ve heard a lot about the mill,” Saunders said. “That’s been a big focus of the whole town. We have seen a lot of people recovering and a lot of people with hope. It is really inspiring. But we know that a lot of people are still working to figure out what’s next and haven’t quite hit the bottom yet.

“We’re looking to see what that means and where Franklin is going from there,” he added.

Asked what got them interested in the project, Schihl said, “I think it sort of started just from our joint passion for people and relationships.”

“We know that there are a lot of things that involve economics and just hard times in general that are being ignored,” Saunders said. “We have a passion for social justice and seeing the equality of all people.”

The filmmakers plan to post two-minute clips onto their website and are connected to the social networking sites Facebook and Twitter.

And they won’t be alone on the open road. Their companion for the journey will be “Iris,” a blue 1984 Volkswagen Vanagon.

“We’re living out of the van,” Schihl said. “But we’re also living on people’s floors, and people are sometimes buying us meals. We’re meeting generous people wherever we go.”

One of those people was Tim Bradshaw, founder and chief executive officer of Insercorp LTD, formerly Bradshaw-Kimbrel Technology Group. He met with the filmmakers over lunch at Fred’s Restaurant.

“I think that it’s great that they came here first,” Bradshaw said. “I think it will help to get exposure for what is going on in Franklin. But I told them that they should come back in the fall and see how different it is.”

Saunders and Schihl said they — and Iris — plan to be back.

“We came into this with a blank slate,” Saunders said. “We didn’t know what to expect. After being in Franklin, we’re seeing that there is going to be a very broad range of stories, from somebody that lives on the street and is looking to get food whenever possible, to someone who is well off but is also working hard to do the best they can to support their family.

“It’s all about changing and adapting to the economic times.”